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Cows Or Alpha Particles And Bit Flipping | Touchstone Words

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Cows or Alpha Particles and Bit Flipping

By Shane Staret on 2018-03-13

What could all three of these things possibly have in common? One is an animal, another is a random natural occurring particle, and the other is a phenomenon where a bit in a computer memory unintentionally changes states due to a defect. Well...what if I told you that some cows that radiated off alpha particles caused bit flipping to occur in computers around them?

Believe it or not, allegedly in the Soviet Union back in the 80s, there was a train system that kept on failing and crashing for seemingly no reason. Then, a software developer found out that there was a distinct pattern that could be used to predict when the train system would “randomly” fail: if cows from Northern Ukraine were being transported, the systems would almost certainly fail, otherwise, they would operate normally. As you might know, the Chernobyl disaster occurred early on in 1986, meaning that these cows transported by the train most likely had a much higher level of radiation than any other livestock. The software engineer suspected that because of these cows, memory errors occurred within the train system causing failures. Was this really the case? Who knows, but it certainly is not impossible.

It is possible that these cows were radiating off enough alpha particles to cause monumental failures in the train system. Alpha particles can be emitted by the radioactive nuclei of uranium, radium, and some other elements. Back in 1978, it was proven that alpha particles can cause soft errors or memory errors within a computer (just like what happened within the train system in the Soviet Union). While speculating whether the livestock story is true or not is quite interesting, what is even more intriguing is how these alpha particles actually cause memory corruption.

Data is stored in bits. Bits only have two possible values, “0” or “1”, and these are represented by two different voltage levels. Well, way back in the day, computer components were packaged in materials that could emit alpha particles. This led to a greater density of holes within the actual computer component, which in turn, caused an imbalance in its voltage distribution. Since a “0” constituted a very specific voltage level and “1” was determined by another specific voltage level, if there was an imbalance, it could cause some bits that were supposed to be “1”, to become a “0” and vice versa. Normally, a memory cell that has a small amount of electrons is a “1” whereas one with many electrons is a “0”. Holes created by the alpha particles could manipulate the level of electrons in these memory cells enough that it could cause a flip. Most of these errors could be reset by restarting the computer and they occurred randomly. However, errors are still errors and should be prevented at all costs. Therefore, packaging containing materials that could damage components became obsolete.

Even though new packaging has been in use since the early 80s, it is still possible to have a memory error caused randomly a set of particles that could affect memory. Eugene Normand did a study showing that on average, 0.0000000000013 memory errors would occur per bit per hour due to “Atmospheric Neutrons” if you are at sea level. Essentially, atmospheric neutrons can be thought of as cosmic rays. What this means is that after approximately 3 days, it can be expected that 96% of the time, a memory error occurred within a running computer due to atmospheric neutrons. What this means is that if you are the average American who spends about 10 hours a day on a computer then you likely have experienced hundreds of memory errors due to random cosmic rays in your lifetime. Neat.


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